Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings
Earlier this year, Story of the Week presented “Slippery Fingers,” one of Dashiell Hammett’s first tales to feature his anonymous detective, the Continental Op. The story appeared in the October 15, 1923, issue of Black Mask under the pseudonym Peter Collinson. The very same issue of the magazine, however, contained a second story by Hammett, “Crooked Souls”—the first work of fiction to be published under his real name. (The story was reprinted as “The Gatewood Caper” in The Big Knockover, a 1966 collection of Hammett’s stories.)
Although appearing side by side in the same magazine and featuring the same anonymous protagonist, the two stories are quite different in tone and style. Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp blog describes “Crooked Souls” as “a crime story about people with problems” and contends that it is “Hammett's first great Op classic of the crime genre. As the evocative title indicates, here Hammett already evinces more interest in character.” While “Slippery Fingers” is a relatively straightforward murder mystery that adheres to the conventions of the genre, “Crooked Souls” details the “dogged, routine detective work” that biographer Richard Layman cites as the distinguishing characteristic of Hammett’s later stories. Some of that investigative work could be tedious: “Shadowing is the easiest of detective work,” Hammett wrote to the editors of Black Mask in 1924. “Back—and it’s only a couple of years back—in the days before I decided that there was more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting, I wasn’t especially fond of shadowing, though I had plenty of it to do.”
In addition, this story introduces three police detectives—Thode, Lusk, and O’Gar—who would reappear in later works. (O’Gar in particular would be a regularly recurring character—becoming almost a sidekick to the Op in future stories.) The detectives of Hammett’s early fiction reflected his firsthand experience at the Pinkerton Agency—and Pinkerton detectives worked closely with the police. It would be several more years before Hammett developed his famous, self-employed private eyes whose relationships with corrupt or incompetent governmental authorities were often uneasy and contentious.
Harvey Gatewood had issued orders that I was to be admitted as soon as I arrived, so it only took me a little less than fifteen minutes to thread my way past the doorkeepers, office boys, and secretaries who filled up most of the space between the Gatewood Lumber Corporation’s front door and the president’s private office. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!